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Initiating a Disruptive Innovation: An Early Acting College’s Perceptions of Change in Its Institutional Field and Justification for Action Open Access

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Change in higher education is a topic of growing urgency and national prominence. The study addressed the limited understanding through institutional theory of how a team at one traditional university interpreted its changing environment and justified adoption of an educational innovation prior to other actors in the field. This effort used the dynamics of institutional change model (Hinings, Greenwood, Reay, & Suddaby, 2004), which tracks the process of de- and reinstitutionalization to understand how change happens within the isomorphic context of the institutional theory framework. A qualitative single site case study was conducted at one leading university that had initiated a new massive open online course (MOOC)–enabled degree program, an innovation potentially disruptive to the traditional model of university education. The study found that perceptions of an external climate of change (exemplified by the perception of disruption in the university field, technology enablers, and societal pressures) and an internal value of innovation (exemplified by larger organizational support for innovation, the college’s specific value and excitement around innovation, and successful experiences with innovative efforts) were significant in the adoption of the new program. The study also found that a long list of justifications and motivations were present, including lowering cost and expanding access to education, increasing internal resources and supporting college values around research, and expanding the opportunity for personal impact and influence. Conclusions focused on the relevancy and necessity of jolts to the change process, the unique factors that enabled actor agency in this circumstance, the importance of attaching new practice to preexisting values, and the prominent role of legitimacy as a motivating factor within institutional theory. Based on this example, suggestions for practice included supporting a value of innovation, selecting a new practice that aligns with societal issues, and identifying justifications for various audiences. Refinements in institutional theory were offered, focusing on the dynamics of institutional change model and the approach to isomorphic forces. Lastly, suggestions were offered for research, primarily around the role of the entrepreneurial actor and the pursuit of legitimacy.

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